As communities navigate the ongoing process of managing the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that food and nourishment are at the forefront of public conversation.
Barely a month ago, food service workers were recognized for their contributions to the nutrition and education of students across the country for School Lunch Hero Day. Now, Congress is poised to pull the rug from under the very heroes we counted on to feed the children of our communities during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March 2020, Congress passed and then-President Donald Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FCCRA), a bill that gave the USDA the flexibility to issue several nationwide waivers for schools and nutrition program operators. These waivers provided food services around the state and country with the tools and flexibility needed to best respond to the effects of the ongoing pandemic and to ensure that the various federal child nutrition programs continue to operate and provide healthy snacks and meals to those students who need it most.
Over the course of the pandemic, the waivers provided universal free school meals during the school year and for summer feeding programs, and allowed for guardians to pick up multiple meals at a time to bring home for their kids. Waivers also provided more flexibility on the menu and allowed for collecting multiple grab-and-go meals, as opposed to individual congregate meals in one place.
Secretary Tom Vilsack and the Biden administration have indicated that extension of the waivers through another year is ideal and the bipartisan “Support Kids Not Red Tape Act,” introduced by Michigan’s senior US Senator Debbie Stabenow and her colleague from Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, looks to address the short term issue of waivers.
In March of this year, Congress was still debating whether to continue to provide the USDA authority to issue these waivers through September 30, 2023, rather than letting them lapse on June 30, 2022. The Omnibus Spending bill passed without including language on extending the waivers. Without these waivers in place, those entities utilizing federal child nutrition programs will not be able to adequately meet the needs of children as we work to transition beyond COVID-19. As we are well aware, the meals provided through federal child nutrition programs are critical to our nation’s pandemic response to childhood hunger.
With these waivers poised to vanish, state programs like 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms become all the more important for schools and ECE’s as they make difficult budget considerations for the coming year. 10 Cents a Meal serves to benefit local food systems by providing family farmers a local customer base and infusing the local food system with much needed dollars. As supply chains continue to falter as a result of the ongoing pandemic and rising fuel and commodity prices, it is essential that policy makers use every tool at hand to ensure that local systems are shored-up and that our food service infrastructure has the needed tools to allow them.
Mary Rosa Vanas, the Food Service Director for Shelby Public Schools—which is also a 10 Cents a Meal grantee—has raised concerns that fuel costs could exacerbate food insecurity in students due to the back-and-forth nature of meal servings as opposed to being able to collect several meals at a time. In a recent interview by WOOD TV News 8, Mary Rose said: “The majority of people who are in the school district live five to seven miles from the school. If you have to come into the school for breakfast every single day, you’re driving five miles there and five miles home. And then you would have to drive in again for lunch and go back home again. There are parents who won’t be able to do it.”
It is evident that school meals are an essential resource in feeding 30 million children every day and food service professionals are doing their very best despite long odds. With this policy set to end due to legislative inaction, it is critical that Congress gives USDA the continuing authority to issue these waivers if needed through the 2022-2023 school year so that child nutrition program operators can effectively plan and prepare for the coming year with the flexibility to meet all students’ needs.
While no piece of legislation is a panacea, keeping our kids fed in times of crisis and economic uncertainty is a no-brainer. Giving food services the resources and flexibility they need as we slowly emerge from pandemic-related considerations and into a supply chain and inflationary crisis is essential.
Nathan Medina is Groundwork’s Policy Specialist. [email protected]